Living Words

Homily for May 20, 2018 (Pentecost Sunday)

Acts 2:1-11; Galatians 5:16-25; John 15:26-27, 16:12-15


A word is dead

  when it is said, some say.

I say it just begins to live that day.

                    —Emily Dickinson (1830-1886)

Today is a day of living words.  Jesus promised his disciples at the Last Supper that he would send “the Advocate,” i.e. the Paraclete or Holy Spirit, who would testify on his behalf, glorify him, and confirm the truth that comes from God.

We see that promise fulfilled when the Holy Spirit came upon the disciples. It first announced itself through a powerful wind.  (Interestingly, while the Greek Pneuma that is used in Acts to speak of the Holy Spirit is neuter, both the Hebrew ruah and the Aramaic rucha are feminine.)    It then appeared “as of tongues of fire, which parted and came to rest on each one of them” and empowered them to speak in languages they had never spoken before.

Pentecost was an important Jewish festival.  As the name suggests, it occurred 50 days after Passover and was marked by pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Originally dedicated to celebrate the spring wheat harvest and an offering of the first fruits of the harvest to God (Leviticus 23:15-17), it later became a time to remember God’s life-giving gift of the Torah to the people of Israel and a time for them to rededicate themselves to God.

Jews from many lands and languages had traveled to Jerusalem for Pentecost, and they found it hard to believe that a group of Galileans, whom they probably considered to be rough and uneducated “country bumpkins,” speaking in various languages “of the mighty acts of God.”  Just as God at one time had caused confusion and division to reign in the face of the people’s pride at the tower of Babel (Genesis 11:1-9), so now God was bringing people together and birthing a church that would become “one, holy, Catholic and apostolic.”

While the gift of the Holy Spirit on that Pentecost is sometimes referred to as the birth of the Church, the Church is only as alive as its members.  That’s why we need to claim and reclaim the gift of the Spirit that has come to rest on each of us and to nurture the virtues that St. Paul recognized as its fruits: “love, joy, peace, patience kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.”  People have sometimes mistaken Paul’s contrast between the flesh and the Spirit as a denigration of our bodies.  Nothing could be further from the truth!  When Paul spoke of “the flesh,” he was referring to our human tendency to sin, when moral theologians have called concupiscence.

Virtue and Spirit are most clearly revealed when they are embodied—in us, just as they were in Jesus and later in all the saints. May his word live in us. +